The government is planning a change in the definition of forests to withdraw legal cover for any man-made plantations or green zones notified after 1980, as part of a new environmental regime aimed to improve ease of doing business in India.The Centre is also looking to change the process of filing appeals with the National Green Tribunal, India’s green watchdog that has been accused by the environment ministry of exceeding its brief while deciding on environmental approvals.
Environment minister Prakash Javadekar told a news channel earlier this week that there would be "a new green regime in 2015", confirming amendments to five key environmental laws will be introduced in the upcoming budget session of Parliament that begins late February.
If they go through, no approval under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) will be required for clearing green areas that came up after 1980 or forests on private land. Cutting down trees planted along highways, railway lines and other projects will also not require prior approval from the Centre and state governments. For example, the large number of trees planted by the Delhi Metro near Najafgarh will lose their green law protection under the new regime.
The approval process under the FCA is considered a major reason for delay in execution of projects.
The current definition of forests, as determined by the Supreme Court, includes any area with trees including compensatory afforestation, where agencies plant trees to make up for the loss of greenery incurred during projects.
The definition, however, created a lot of confusion in forest regulation and led to a large number of litigation over clearance of schemes, a ministry official said. The government now aims to end this ambiguity.
The way out was devised by the TSR Subramanian committee that said only those green areas notified as forest before October 25, 1980 — when the FCA came into force — should be treated as forest for purposes of approval and clearance.
This exercise is part of a bigger overhaul in India’s green regime to reduce the scope for judicial intervention and improve the country’s business climate.
Five laws – the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Water Act, the Air Act and the Indian Forest Act — stand to be amended.
To dilute the powers of the NGT, the government proposes to introduce another layer for appeal against ministry approvals, similar to the mechanism in the Right to Information Act.
In the new regime, the first appeal against an approval will have to be made with the environment appellate board comprising senior government officials. Only then can a second appeal against the board’s decision be filed with the national green watchdog.
The government is also looking at diluting the provision of mandatory consent of gram sabhas for a project.